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Epiphany: Reflections on Following a Star…

January 6, 2015

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Yes, I realize this is not a picture of a star at night! It is a moon capture from one of our evenings down at the beaches of the Emerald Coast of Florida. However, it does fit in with the thoughts percolating in my head about the Feast of the Epiphany which we commemorate today.

Today, in the liturgical calendar, the church remembers the visit of the Wise Men to Mary, Joseph, and the toddler Jesus. The Wise Men, having made a practice of studying the heavens, saw something different in the night sky they studied. It caused them to set out on a journey that would forever change their lives, and sadly, the lives of so many others when Herod carried out his maniacal plot to massacre all males under the age of two. However, my focus today is on the star and their journey.

Little is known about the Wise Men (also called Magi, Astrologers, or Kings), including how many actually visited the Holy Family. What we do know from Matthew’s Gospel is that “wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.'” (Matthew 2:1-2) They had noted this strange star in the night sky and decided to follow it to the place where it revealed the child Jesus. When they found Jesus with Mary, they knelt down and paid him homage, offering him treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Can you imagine the boldness and faith of someone who would set out on a journey with nothing more than a star to guide them? What lands and deserts and scary places did these wise men traverse to find Jesus? They didn’t have GPS or OnStar or Siri to guide them, they relied instead on a star and their knowledge of the night sky to find their way.

During my time with the Air Force in Nevada, I remember being out in the middle of the night during war-gaming exercises and training. We were about fifty miles outside of Las Vegas and the light pollution was minimal. On a clear night, you could easily navigate the rough and dangerous desert terrain without artificial light. The illumination from the moon and the stars made it fairly easy to make your way through wadis and over hills and around desert vegetation. But if it was a night where there was little to no lunar illumination or clouds obscured the stars and moon, traversing the desert could become treacherous. Often times I would think about how in ages past, people used the stars to navigate not only treacherous terrain, but also to cross boundless oceans or seas. Navigating by the stars, Saint Columba and his fellow monks made their way from Ireland to Iona and Saint Brendan the Navigator made his journeys across the ocean, possibly making it to the North American continent.

The thing is, these wayfarers all knew what they were doing. They may not have known exactly where they were going (how many explorers know exactly where they are going anyway?), but they knew how to maintain their direction and heading. The Wise Men knew that the star which they followed had something to do with a newborn king. But they didn’t know where Jesus was until the star revealed him to them. They trusted that the star would guide them to where they needed to be just as Saint Columba and Saint Brendan trusted the stars to guide them into the unknown and back home again.

Back in Nevada, I remember being on a land-navigation course in the desert. Our objective was to find points on a map and caches with coordinates for the next location inside of the boxes. Using our “Plugger” (Precision Lightweight GPS Receiver or PLGR), we would load the coordinates and follow the instrument to the next location. However, there were plenty of times when the satellites which the PLGR relied upon would not be picked up by the device. If that happened, out came the map and compass and you had to find your way using the old school method! There were a few of our Security Forces members who could also use their familiarity with the stars to help keep their bearings, but we relied mainly on the map and compass and, when it worked, the PLGR.

Whether it be Wise Men, Saints, or a wandering Chaplain and Air Force Security Forces members; we all were trying to get from one location to the next. And we all were thankful for the moon and stars which illuminated our way. We all had a star we were following in faith and hope towards our destination. Isn’t that what it is like for us in our own faith journeys? We wander and roam through this journey called life, seeking a destination or simply trying not to get lost. The Wise Men followed the star and found Jesus. We followed our navigation devices and, at times, the moon and the stars, to get to the desired location on the map. But more than that, often times in the desert in the middle of the night (especially in the days following September 11, 2001 when we were guarding an installation from an unknown threat), the Security Forces members and I would have some deep discussions about faith and life.

So when I look at the night sky now, I think about many things. Seeing Orion (my favorite constellation) gives me a sense of being connected, regardless of whether I see Orion from a location in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Abu Dhabi, England, Nevada, Minnesota, North Dakota, Alabama or Florida. Looking at the thousands of stars when Denise and I are standing in a clearing in the middle of the Eglin AFB Range where there is minimal light pollution, I am at once overwhelmed with how small I am when compared to the massive creation, and comforted that God is as familiar with me as God is with all the stars in the heavens.

This Epiphany, take a moment to ponder these questions: Who do you follow? What is guiding your life journey? And then, pray as I do, that we may follow the Lord simply, humbly, and completely, as we journey this life of faith together.

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